Not their First Rodeo

By Erin Chesnut
Photos Courtesy University of Tennessee at Martin

As Jeff Askey prepared to enter the bucking chute during the 2018 Championship Bull Riding Bud Light Classic in Jackson, Tennessee, the announcer began his introduction.“He went to college in Martin. He lived just up the road. Give a warm West Tennessee welcome to Jeff Askey!”

And the crowd welcomed him home.

“That place gets three times louder than it does the rest of the night for the other competitors,” Askey says. The 2010 UT Martin graduate successfully defended his 2017 championship title and took home a second champion’s buckle this year.

The Bud Light Classic is far from Askey’s first rodeo, however, and he fondly remembers his years competing in the UT Martin Spring College Rodeo, an event which celebrated 50 years this April.

Students, alumni and people from across Northwest Tennessee fill the Ned McWherter Agricultural Complex to the breaking point year after year as cowboys and cowgirls don the Skyhawk colors and ride for pride and glory.

“They pack that arena every spring,” says Askey. “You can figure on it being standing-room only on Friday and Saturday nights.”

Clark Adcock (Martin ’15), right, competes in steer wrestling during the UT Martin spring rodeo in 2015.

Askey, originally from Pennsylvania, and Middle Tennesseans John Alley (Martin ’14) and his longtime roping partner Clark Adcock (Martin ’15) all came to UT Martin to rodeo—brought together by a desire to learn from Coach John Luthi, a legend in his field.

“In my opinion, Coach Luthi and the way he runs his program there in Martin is, hands down, the best in the country,” says Askey. “When I was in college, there were, I think, probably six or seven coaches across the country who had gone to school for Coach Luthi and had adapted some of his coaching techniques. The school where I went to junior college, that coach, his coaching style and technique were somewhat formatted off of Coach Luthi. To me, that speaks to the level of (the) Martin (program) and the coach there, that other schools are copying him.”

“There are very few rodeo programs that I’ve seen or even heard of that can touch the impact and the unity and the professionalism that you’ll get at UT Martin,” says Alley, continuing with high praise for his former coach. “Without Coach Luthi, the UT Martin rodeo team would not win anything. They would not have accomplished anything that they’ve accomplished.”

The team has accomplished many things in the past five decades, both before and after Luthi’s arrival in 1997.

Rodeo became a collegiate sport at UT Martin in 1968 and quickly developed a reputation for success, with the team winning the UT Martin Rodeo Invitational Championship for three consecutive years (1969-1971). Cowboy Skip Emmett became UT Martin’s first national champion in 1975 after capturing the national all-around cowboy title and winning the national bareback riding championship. The UT Martin program lived up to expectations after that, consistently dominating the Ozark Region and placing well in the national rankings.

Clark Adcock (Martin ’15), left, and John Alley (Martin ’14) compete in team roping during the UT Martin 2012 spring rodeo.

In 2014, the men’s team made history as the first collegiate rodeo team from east of the Mississippi River to win a national team title at the annual College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming.

Alley, a senior that year, was team captain. He and Adcock—two of six cowboys representing UT Martin—helped the team bring home championship buckles.

Alley and Adcock have roped together since their high school days and continue to be close friends and rodeo partners in professional circuits. In the team roping event, two cowboys and their horses work together to catch a steer at both ends. The header—Alley—loops his rope around the steer’s head or horns, and the heeler—Adcock—catches the back feet. Each pair’s final score depends on time elapsed and the precision of the catch. Even though they now live in separate towns and have few opportunities to practice as a team, after nearly a decade together, Alley and Adcock easily pick up where they left off in each new arena.

“We’ve been working together for so long, we get to the run and we usually know what (the) other is going to do,” says Adcock. “You can practice with someone else, but when me and John get back in the box together, we know what each other is thinking.”

“We don’t quit on each other. If stuff goes badly, we just keep roping together,” says Alley. “We’re a team. If we go down, we’re going to go down together. If we’re going to win, we’re going to win together. We don’t point fingers and get mad at each other. We just keep on keeping on.”

Jeff Askey (Martin ’10) competes during the UT Martin 2010 spring rodeo.

In 2016, Alley and Adcock placed in the top 20 cowboys on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, a testament to their years of hard work and dedication to the sport. While both men now have full-time jobs beyond the rodeo ring, they continue to travel the country and rodeo every chance they have.

Askey has spent the eight years since graduation traveling the country to compete full time in various rodeo and exclusive bull-riding events. Ending his collegiate career as the 2010 national champion bull rider, Askey has gone on to have high world and national rankings in the PRCA.

“I qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in 2016. That’s compared to being the Super Bowl of rodeo. It’s the top 15 in the world riding in a 10-day rodeo in Vegas that pays out somewhere around $28,000 a night,” he says. “I ended up 11th in the world at the end (of 2016).” He had promising seasons in 2013 and 2017, too, but severe injuries ultimately kept him out of the qualifying 15.

All three cowboys credit the UT Martin rodeo program and Luthi, who trains his team for life as well as rodeo, for their success since graduation.

“There’s more to it than just winning,” says Luthi. “(Rodeo is) a great opportunity to help young people learn about life and how to make good choices. The experiences (the riders) have in the arena, those will be lifelong memories. But the things they learn in team meetings, that’s what’s going to stick with them.”

“(Rodeo) teaches you how to take the ups and downs of life,” says Alley. “In rodeo, you’re not going to win every time. It’s just like life—every day is not going to be golden. You’re not always going to be rich; people are going to die. You have to find the good out of everything that happens, and you take it and you move on.”